By Senior Master Sgt. Idalia Peele , 721st Communications Squadron
/ Published March 18, 2009
PETERSON AFB, Colo. --
It is probably safe to assume that most woman, like myself, who join today's Air Force, do so without realizing that it wasn't always as easy; there were many challenges, and without the same opportunities than we are afforded today.
I completed a course titled "Women in America since 1870" which opened my eyes to the struggles women underwent to reach equality, not just in earning the right to vote but to dream and be whatever they desired, whether astronaut, pilot, warrior, chief master sergeant or President of the United States.
If you would've asked a woman from the early nineteenth century if a woman would someday run for President, she probably would've never imagined it. Even more unbelievable, today women fly airplanes, fighter jets and combat helicopters. Women they defend combat convoys as turret gunners and command battalions as high ranking officers. While women have served the United States in times of war, they were not always embraced as part of the Armed Services. In fact, thousands of women served in World War I before they could even vote.
World War I was the first war where women had any part in a military environment. According to Sara Evans in her book "Born for Liberty in the United States", political and prescriptive propaganda urged women to undertake service to the nation as an extension of their "natural" domestic role. Women's reaction was largely patriotic and supportive. Over 16,000 women served overseas in the American Expeditionary Force as members and civilian employees of the army, to include ambulance drivers, canteen workers, telephone operators, and nurses. Back at the home front, more than 12,000 women enlisted in the Navy and Marine Corps, and tens of thousands of civilian women were employed in Army offices and hospitals. About 6,000 thousand of the women serving overseas were employed as auxiliary or canteen workers.
Susan Zeiger explains in her book, "In Uncle Sam's Service: Women Workers with the American Expeditionary Force, 1917-1919," that their duties were to "lend a "homelike" flavor to Army life, serving as stand-ins for the female kin left behind while they served coffee and donuts." Even in the role of servicewoman, women struggled to fight for equality within the military as did the women's movement at that time. The women's role in World War I was important to women's political and economical advancement and played a vital role in the rise of women's suffrage militancy. In 1918, the House of Representatives passed the Federal Suffrage Amendment and the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified and became part of the U.S. Constitution in 1920.
At the outset of World War II, the U.S. Government was forced to acknowledge the importance and value of women in the industrial sector and in the Armed Forces. The result was the creation of women's branches of the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines in 1942 and 1943 in addition to Army and Navy Nursing Corps created during World War I. Women also flew commercial and air force transport planes for the Women's Airforce Service Pilots.
The Women's Air Corp or "WAC" was formerly known as the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. Massachusetts Congressional Representative Edith Nourse Rogers introduced the WAAC in 1941 to establish a Women's Army Corps separate from the Army Nurse Corps. Although Representative Rogers believed the women's corps should be a part of the Army so that women would receive equal pay, pension, and disability benefits, the Army did not want to accept women directly into its ranks.
The Army provided up to 150,000 "auxiliaries" with food, uniforms, living quarters, pay, and medical care. But there were many stipulations to the capacity in which these women could serve; one example was that women officers would not be allowed to command men. Furthermore, the women performed Army jobs but were not considered regular army. It wasn't till 1943 the WAAC became the WAC, granting women full military status. Though the total number of women serving in military roles increased since WWI, their roles were still very much alike. The types of jobs they performed were as telephone switchboard operators, clerks, typists, secretaries, and motor pool drivers. Additionally, WAC officers served as executive secretaries, cryptographer, and photo interpreters. Contrary to the more traditional roles being performed by the other branches, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, approximately1,000 strong, flew more than 60 million miles of operational flights and 77 different types of aircraft, towing targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice, simulating strafing missions and transporting cargo. Nevertheless, they were classified as civilians, could not fly with men in the cockpit, and made less money than their male counterparts.
In a recent Airman's Magazine article, Betty Jo Streff-Reed, a former WASP member, states "right from the start the boys there made it pretty clear we weren't wanted" but as far as she was concerned she loved her job and wouldn't have wanted to do anything else. Through their service in the WASP, 38 women ultimately gave their lives. The WASP was disbanded in 1944 and it would be more than 30 years before the Air Force would again train women recruits to fly. During World War II, military women took pride in newly gained competence and maturity, working in assignments formerly given to men, working alongside men, and adapting to a hierarchal system. The war effort initiated vast economic and social changes, and indelibly altered the role of women in American society.
In the United States, the number of women, both enlisted and commissioned, grew from 1 percent of the forces in 1971 to 6 percent in 1978 to approximately 12 percent during the early 1980s. More women than ever are serving in today's Armed Services. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 215, 243 total active duty women in the military in 2005.
Combat roles first opened to women during the first Gulf War, when President Clinton signed a bill ending combat exclusions on combatant ships. In 1993, all armed forces were ordered to open combat aviation to women and in 1994 the Navy aircraft carrier, USS Eisenhower, received its first 60 women. Women are now just as qualified as men to fill about 80 percent of jobs in the military to include combat positions. According to Kirsten Holmstedt, in her book "Band of Sisters," more than 155,000 women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. Women have proven that they can contribute to the war efforts and the nation's defense as much as men do, not just from the home front as in 50 years ago. Women are just as patriotic and bring many attributes to the battlefield.
Army Captain Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War Black Hawk pilot and veteran whose severe combat wounds cost her both of her legs and damaged her right arm, said it best when she referred to the Soldier's Creed statements: I will always place the mission first. I will never quit. I will never accept defeat. I never leave a fallen Comrade, as "gender-neutral statements that get at the heart of what it means to be an American Soldier today". She continues to state that she is no different than any other soldier, man or woman.
In conclusion, the struggles women fought more than a hundred years ago have benefited the many women today who have realized their dreams of growing up to become nurses, fire fighters, or fighter jet pilots. During World War I, women, though most persuaded by the government, jumped to the opportunity to serve their country and work war industry jobs. By the second war, women were filling an increased number of administrative and nursing jobs but more importantly they began to perform in more non-traditional roles such as airplane pilots as members of the WASP.
Today I, as a woman, enjoy the fruits of their labor as a member of the United States Air Force. Currently more women serve in the military and their roles have expanded to combat operations. No longer is an armed service member's career field depending on gender. I enlisted by free will and underwent the same process my male counterparts went through to proceed through the ranks. I have deployed to Baghdad, Iraq and faced the same dangers as any other armed service member, man or women; but I'm mostly proud to be an Airman, not just a woman, serving in the defense of the United States.